The Surprising Facts Behind Korean Child Abandonment

10/10/2017 04:01 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2017
<strong><em>Korea Social Service Official Orphan Photo</em></strong>
Joel L. A. Peterson
Korea Social Service Official Orphan Photo

Why So Many Orphans?

The Drop Box is one of the most successful documentaries of its kind. It tells the story of a Korean pastor who built a box into which Korean mothers can safely abandon their babies. And just walk away — anonymously.

Since the 1950s, 80 to 90 percent of all children born to single mothers in Korea have ended up in orphanages and potentially available for adoption — with a significant portion having been abandoned. This is compared with less than one percent of American children born to single mothers being relinquished.

Are Korean women different than other women? Does Korean culture not value children? Why have there been so many children simply abandoned by their mothers, not just as depicted in The Drop Box, but in every conceivable way for most of the last half century?

South Korea has a long and visible history as a source of internationally adopted children. Although undoubtedly some of these children were victims of de facto human trafficking, the significant majority appear not to be. And many, if not most were physically abandoned — decades before there were baby “drop boxes” — at police stations, hospital doors, church steps, or simply at bus and train stations. And on dirt roads and concrete sidewalks.

Over 100,000 children may have been abandoned

Approximately 200,000 Korean children have been adopted out of Korea since the 1950s, with potentially a majority of them having been abandoned. How could possibly over 100,000 mothers secretly abandon their babies and simply walk off into a crowd or into the cloaking dark of night?

As an author and a doctoral researcher in education and adoption I've noticed that many adoptees from Korea struggle with the issue of being abandoned, with many wondering why they were not "wanted" or valued enough to be kept. I've seen countless times where people question why they were not at least turned over to an agency rather than being "abandoned", often at police stations or public spaces.

Unintended Consequences of Citizenship Law

There has been much written about social and cultural pressures inherent in Korea and other societies that stigmatize and often marginalize single mothers and their children. These unwritten norms and prejudices certainly have played a role in causing some women to abandon their children. They help explain why single mothers relinquish their children, But what explains so much anonymous physical abandonment vs. placement in foster care or an orphanage?

My research has uncovered some surprising laws and perverse incentives that may explain in part why so many Korean children, until relatively recently, have been abandoned over the decades. My research suggests possible answers which may imply that many Korean children who were found "abandoned" were so — surprisingly — because of their mothers’ love and agonized best intentions, not because they were not valued.

The right of blood

Until June 13, 1998, South Korean citizenship law conferred citizenship only to children born to a father who was a Korean citizen (the father had to legally validate paternity). Children of Korean citizen women, who had either a non-Korean father or no known Korean father (no Korean man claimed paternity), were not Korean citizens — even if born in Korea.

Korean citizenship was not, and still does not, get conferred simply by being born within Korean territory, but is conferred by jus sanguinis ("right of blood"), a principle of nationality law by which citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but by having one or both parents who are citizens of the state.

However, children whose "right of blood" could not be determined -- orphaned, abandoned, or stateless children — found within Korean sovereign territory were Korean citizens under South Korea's citizenship laws.

Perverse incentives

Therefore, many single mothers chose to "abandon" their "fatherless" child so that the child would have the rights and access to services, education, and employment as a Korean citizen, rather than have their child officially recorded as not having a Korean father and therefore being a non-citizen with no such rights.

This situation not only would have incentivized many single mothers to "abandon" their children, but also would have incentivized many institutions that took in children from single mothers to fabricate an abandonment scenario so as to give the child the benefits of Korean citizenship.

Given the perverse incentives of South Korean citizenship laws until nearly the 21st century, I would suggest that many "abandoned" Korean children were not truly abandoned — in the sense of a mother simply not caring, not loving, or not wanting her child.

Not Truly Abandoned

Instead, my research suggests that many — maybe most or all — "abandoned" Korean children were wanted and their mothers went through a horrendous, agonizing process to reach a decision that showed that their mothers cared for their welfare and did the only thing they could to give some advantage to their child by at least conferring Korean citizenship.

Many single Korean mothers may have felt that their love alone was not enough. They may have believed that the potential advantages — right to an education, to social services, to legally work — of Korean citizenship, even when raised in an institution, were greater than the benefits of being raised by a single mother, but as a non-Korean citizen.

The fact that all "abandoned" children were by definition found abandoned (e.g., by police at their station or passersby in a public space) may be evidence that the mother truly did not "abandon" the child -- she took efforts to ensure her child would be found, at risk to herself.

Most of those who were truly abandoned are the ones we know nothing about and were not put into orphanages or adopted, because they were not found by anyone and instead, tragically, many may have died.

It would seem logical and likely, if a mother — sociopathically — truly did not care and intended to truly abandon her child with no effort or regard for the child's welfare, she would also want to ensure no possible link to herself. Child abandonment was and still is a crime in Korea, so there was risk in abandoning a child if linked back to the mother or father that did the abandonment.

An ironic, tragic indication of a mother’s love

Although tragically ironic, the fact that a Korean child was "abandoned" in a way that allowed the child to be found, may be the most tangible and compelling evidence that the Korean birth mother loved that child and — among a limited set of painful and wrenching choices facing her, at least until almost the end of the 20th century — she acted to give her child some advantage and hope for a future she felt she could not offer by keeping that child.

Recent surveys conducted in Korea indicate that greater than 90 percent of single mothers desire to keep their child if their circumstances and society had allowed. It would seem that, indeed, Korean mothers are no different than mothers everywhere. Just Korean laws and the weight of Korean social norms.

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Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers (Huff Publishing Associates, 2015).

-- 1st Place Winner, 2015 Readers' Favorite National Book Awards (Gold Award)

-- Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Winner

“Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, Dreams of My Mothers is a powerful read that will linger in the mind and memory long after it is finished. Very highly recommended.”

— Midwest Book Review

Learn more about the author and his book at Dreamsofmymothers.com and on Facebook

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